BY VIKKI ORTIZ HEALY
Ever since he was a little boy, 15-year-old Dakota Jackson said he has entertained his family with handstands, kick-ball-changes and other hip-hop dance moves whenever he hears a beat.
So when it came time for the sophomore at Eisenhower High School in south suburban Blue Island in Illinois choose an after-school activity, Jackson, who is 6-foot-2 and built like a quarterback, ignored suggestions to try basketball and football and instead tried out for the dance team.
“I knew I wouldn’t have enjoyed the other sports,” said Jackson, who was aware that his school’s dance team was historically all girls, but said he didn’t let it bother him. “I just thought it would be fun to start dancing.”
Jackson — now one of three boys performing dance routines with the Eisenhower Cardinals — is part of a statewide increase in male dancers on high school teams and also part of a national trend.
Since the 2012-2013 school year, when the Illinois High School Association designated dance as a sport with a statewide championship, there has been a noticeable uptick in the number of boys on teams, said Tracie Henry, IHSA assistant executive director.
State officials and school administrators say the move to recognize dance as a sport, combined with the way educators encourage young people to be themselves, are helping to fuel the trend.
Exposure to dance in the mainstream media and the potential for college scholarships also help, they said.
“It’s just kids these days. It’s more acceptable for girls to do guy things and guys to do girl things, even more than 10 years ago,” said Nikki Meyer, varsity dance coach at Bloomington High School in Bloomington, Ill., which has two male students on its team this year.
Still mostly female
Meyer said she has been delighted to have three or four boys show up for dance team auditions each year for the past several years, allowing her to select boys for the team based on dance ability — and not just as a novelty.
Dance teams have long been a tradition at high schools across the country, and schools with strong fine arts and dance programs began showing up to competitions with boys on their teams about a decade ago, said Paula Hess, former Illinois state director for the Universal Dance Association. The association was founded in 1980 to offer dance and drill team education, camps and competitions.
But in Illinois, dance teams stayed largely female until the IHSA recognized competitive dance as a state series. The move, which came after strong lobbying from coaches and students at more than 200 schools, allows high school dance team participants to compete in a multilayered state competition — from regionals to conference finals — that culminates with the awarding of a state trophy, Henry said.
Fewer than 10 states in the U.S. recognize dance as an official high school sport, Hess said.
At Reavis High School in Burbank, Ill., varsity dance coach Amanda Shewmaker said that the year after the IHSA change, she had eight boys try out for the team — more than ever before.
“Guys like the competitive aspect of it,” said Shewmaker, who added that boys on the dance team give the choreographed routines performed at halftime shows, in parades and at other school functions a new flavor.
“I like the mix that it does bring,” she said. “It does change the dynamic.”
Marion Castillo, varsity dance coach at Eisenhower High, said male students at her school also say they appreciate the exposure participation in dance teams offers them for college scholarship opportunities, since some recruiters scout for future students at the state competitions.
At a recent after-school practice, the team’s three boys fell into rows where they executed flips, chest pops and other hip-hop moves in precision with the 15 other team members, who are girls.
Sophomore Kiarri Smith said she didn’t think twice about boys dancing next to her on the team.
“It’s like having more brothers, and I already have two at home,” she said. “Our generation is more, like, open-minded than the others.”
Out of comfort zone
State high school sporting officials don’t officially track how many boys participate in dance each year, but they expect to see more male participants at state dance competitions as time goes on.
“When kids visualize something, or have the opportunity to see it in mass media or on television, it makes it more accepting for them to join the team as well,” Henry said.
Clarence Pugh, a 16-year-old junior and one of two boys on the dance team at Bloomington, said he’d be glad if he inspires other male students to pursue dance if they are interested. He said boys who do so might be surprised to see how receptive audiences are.
“I like to get out of my comfort zone and do different things,” Pugh said. “A lot of people, they’re accepting about what you do. They just like it.”